Start From Where You Are

Volume 137, No. 14 - Friday, September 28, 2012

To continue with the topic of learning about your customers, or market research, I must beg your indulgence, since writing a column is a monologue, not the meatier dialogue.

Marketing should be a dialogue. Most of your time should be spent listening, not talking, and yet — how much do we listen?

It is entirely backwards to market from what one is already making; to start with the product then try to find a way to convince people to buy it. It is upside down. It can also cost a lot of money.

In the same way, most market surveys are ill-conceived, poorly planned, aim low rather than high, more often than not leading down the wrong path. Why? Because they are focused on trying to learn what customers think about an existing product to find some way to convince them to buy it; because they are looking inside-out not outside-in; because they do not know who all of their target customers actually are; and because they take it for granted that what people say is what they do.

It’s okay! It’s not unusual. There is no need to panic, even if you have thrown bucket loads of money away, because you are not alone: your competitor is probably doing the self same thing. Let’s take each point
one by one.

The Laundry List
Ill-conceived survey: like the old saying, if you do not know where you are going any road will get you there. Most people do not take the time to ask themselves, “what exactly is my theory?” Why am I doing this survey? What do I hope to learn from it? What information do I need to be able to use it to transform what I will learn into useful action. A classic example is the question, “Are you satisfied with our product?”

Poorly planned survey: how can you plan if you do not know what you are looking for? Remember Wheelers 3 questions: What do I want to accomplish? How am I going to accomplish it, and how will I know that what I accomplish is what I wanted?

Aim low rather than high: the aim of market research should be to understand your customers, perhaps, even better than they understand themselves. Superficial information like, what they think about your product, or your competitor’s product will not help you. Consumers are people, and people are willful, adaptive and adoptive.

They do not know what they want until they see it. It is our job, as producers, to innovate and bring to market new products designed in such a way as to fulfill a need or a desire, so when they see it, they want it.

All customers: it is useful to think of the next person or process inline as a customer, and essential to embrace that the ultimate customer is the one who consumes the product. Too often, we only think of whomever buys the product off our dock.

We do not think of what happens to the product after that, and we do not think of the people that work with us as customers, nor do we think of our suppliers as customers.

Everything is connected: You have to look at things as a system to understand how to grease the wheels in order to get the best and most reliable results, in the case of cheese, from the soil to the table and back again. If you are ready to take that leap of faith, you must at least take responsibility from your loading dock to the customer’s table.

Not only is it not enough ask people what they think of you, or your competitor, you must create a dialogue among all the parts, starting with asking questions that help them clarify for themselves their needs, their desires, and their preconceptions.

You must go to where they interact with your product, whether as a trucker, distributor, copacker, retail outlet, restaurant, institutional feeding facility, clerk, cook, purchasing agent, or private citizen cooking in their kitchen, or sitting down in public to eat.

So the good news is, start from where you are. Even, start with yourself. We forget sometimes that we are consumers too.

That we deal daily with our suppliers, and depending on the company, everyone along the supply chain in some way, at some point in our lives. So grab a pencil and paper, and let’s start doing some real market research.
In one column, write down a list of all the different people/ processes /functions you can think of that touch some part of your product from farm to table.

In the next column, write down what you think you know about their habits, needs, desires and preconceptions.
Those that occur before your loading dock, those within the walls of your plant, by different stages of production or functions, and those that live between the loading dock where you ship and where your product is finally consumed.

Do not stop there! While what you do not know may hurt you, what you know that is not true will kill you. So make a third column, and sit down and figure out the kinds of questions you can ask that will accomplish one of:

Three Important Things
1. Find out whether or not what you think is so, is.
2. Find out what of what you think is so, is not.
3. Find out what is so, but you did not consider.

Then go out to as many people as you can at each link along the chain and listen. Ask them your questions in such a way that it does not freak them out. Do not challenge them, it is their perception after all, and write down what they say. Do not put too much weight on what they say just yet. A survey like this is helpful, but there is more you need to know before you can put what they say in context and turn their responses into useful information.

You need to keep in mind the resumé affect. Calling the references on someone’s resumé and expecting to get negative comments is foolish. A limited list of people chosen selectively, not at random, returns slanted information. Even more crucial, the invisible effect of variation must be understood, or you will react to noise and use the signals.

Other forms of market research will have to be done as well, which will be the topic of my following columns. DS

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at You can visit and blog with Dan at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Learning About Your Customer
dot The Vision Thing
dot Customer Service? NOT!
dot Collaboration: The Road To A Better Future
dot Resolution
dot Water

dot In Memoriam: Ignazio Vella 1928-2011
dot Of Cheese, Seals, And Deming
dot In Their Own Words: Lettie Kilmoyer
dot In Their Own Words: Fritz Maytag
dot In Their Own Words: Paula Lambert
dot Show Me the Money: Cost Accounting
dot Cost Accounting Chokes, Part 2: Inventory

dot Cost Accounting Is Choking Your Business, Part 1
dot It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over
dot Raw Reason
dot A Story For The Holiday Season, Part II
dot A Story For The Holiday Season
dot Truth In Labeling
dot This Too Shall Pass or "What were we thinking?"
dot Marketing Language That Resonates
dot When Will We Ever Learn?
dot Cheese Competitions In The Context Of Marketing

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

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